At this point, it seems there are probably three groups in America. There’s one group that participates in orchestrated theme roll-outs like the one we saw on Tuesday.
There’s a second group that recognizes these developments as orchestrated theme roll-outs.
And there’s a third group – no doubt the largest one by far – that pays no attention to the orchestrated theme roll-outs, and for the most part doesn’t know they’ve happened.
The theme roll-out went like this. The New York Times reported Tuesday morning that Robert Mueller sent Attorney General William Barr a letter in late March “objecting to his [Barr’s] early description of the Russia investigation’s conclusions that appeared to clear President Trump on possible obstruction of justice.” (The “early description” was part of Barr’s 4-page letter to Congress highlighting the conclusions of the Mueller report, sent on 24 March.)
The NYT authors apparently had not seen the Mueller letter, and said, “It was unclear what specific objections Mr. Mueller raised in his letter, though a Justice Department spokeswoman said on Tuesday evening that he ‘expressed a frustration over the lack of context’ in Mr. Barr’s presentation of his findings on obstruction of justice.”
This is the extent of the specific allegations cited in the NYT article:
In one instance, Mr. Barr took Mr. Mueller’s words out of context to suggest that the president had no motive to obstruct justice. In another instance, he plucked a fragment from a sentence in the Mueller report that made a conclusion seem less damaging for Mr. Trump.
On the other hand, later reporting from the Washington Post indicated Mueller did not say Barr had said anything inaccurate in his 4-page missive.
The NYT article’s webpage says a version of the piece ran in the print edition Tuesday, which would mean the initial version was completed some hours before it was distributed. Content in the online version indicates – as suggested in a quote above – that it was updated with new information during the day.
A brief pile-on ensued at other media outlets. (See below.) Later on Tuesday (the filing time is shown as 8:21 PM Eastern), the Washington Post published a story on the same topic. This one cited some particulars from the Mueller letter, for which the date was given as 27 March 2019.
“The [Barr] summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
The letter made a key request: that Barr release the 448-page report’s introductions and executive summaries, and it made initial suggested redactions for doing so, according to Justice Department officials. [This request, in other words, was for Barr to release these sections of the Mueller report before the redactions had been completed and the whole document released.]
You wouldn’t know it from the massive pile-on frenzy after this posting, but even the WaPo article acknowledges that Mueller didn’t say Barr had written anything incorrect or misleading, in the 4-page summary Barr published shortly after Mueller’s report was handed in. In fact, Barr asked if Mueller thought he had been inaccurate, and Mueller said no.
When Barr pressed Mueller on whether he thought Barr’s memo to Congress was inaccurate, Mueller said he did not but felt that the media coverage of it was misinterpreting the investigation, officials said.
As that sentence suggests, WaPo’s account of the phone call between Mueller and Barr, after Barr received the letter, identifies what Mueller’s concern apparently was. Emphasis added:
In that call, Mueller said he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction investigation was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work, according to Justice Department officials. Mueller did not express similar concerns about the public discussion of the investigation of Russia’s election interference, the officials said.
It’s a bit hard for the sensible person to take this seriously. Barr said nothing inaccurate; Barr took full responsibility for his interpretation of the nature of the “obstruction” findings, and did not say at any point that it was Mueller’s interpretation. (Indeed, he made it clear in the 4-page highlights memo that Mueller had not forwarded a proposed interpretation or set of conclusions to him, and that that was a conscious choice on Mueller’s part. As WaPo says, “Barr has testified previously he did not know whether Mueller supported his conclusion on obstruction.”)
Yet Mueller, a prosecutor with long experience, wrote to complain about his boss’s letter because Mueller didn’t like how media coverage was going?
That in itself is a red flag as to what this is about. Mueller went through 22 months of near-absolute silence on the trend of media coverage as regards his investigation. When it came to media coverage, honey badger didn’t care.
But suddenly, in the few weeks between handing in his report and the promised release of it in redacted form – which occurred quite promptly (on 18 April), as these things go – Mueller became agitated about media coverage.
As a narrative, the story isn’t hanging together too well. But it exploded Tuesday evening across the main- and left-stream media, as the handy visual from the Memeorandum aggregator site shows:
It remains one of the wonders of the modern world how ready the articles on these trending topics are, for immediate publication at sympathetic sites.
The sympathetic sites revved their engines and made a great noise, to the effect that Barr needed to be grilled first on one side and then the other, and then forced to resign in disgrace. They cited many eloquent, thoughtfully composed #ImpeachBarr tweets to bolster their case.
Mueller to Barr Shorter:#ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr #ImpeachBarr
— Eric Wolfson (@EricWolfson) May 1, 2019
Defeat the far right extremist GOP
Bring back common sense. https://t.co/VMkiB4sZZL
— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) May 1, 2019
— Jon Cryer (@MrJonCryer) May 1, 2019
I can't say what I know, but I don't think it matters. The Attorney General lied to Congress, That's a felony and is impeachable. @MichaelCohen212 was sentenced for it; Bill Barr should be treated no differently IMO #ImpeachBarr
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) May 1, 2019
Senator: "Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?"
AG Barr: "I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.”
— Scott Dworkin (@funder) May 1, 2019
And as night follows day – or, to be precise, near-simultaneously with the official posting time of the Washington Post article – House Democrats published a letter to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, requesting that he begin an investigation of William Barr.
The pretext for the investigation looks remarkably thin. Let us say it looks entirely misdirected, given that the decisions and actions the House members question lie within the discretionary purview of the attorney general, and are not reasonably reviewable by the IG.
The Democratic representatives want Horowitz to investigate “whether [Barr] has demonstrated sufficient impartiality to continue overseeing the fourteen criminal matters related to the Special Counsel’s investigation” that were referred by Mueller to the DOJ, and whether “Barr’s decision to hold a press conference to assert his own views regarding the report well before releasing the redacted report and his statements at the press conference … were proper and consistent with Justice Department policies and practices.”
The IG can’t reasonably propose to “investigate” these matters. Perhaps the House Democrats are laying the groundwork to propose yet another special counsel to investigate Barr. Otherwise, the obvious course of action, if they really feel strongly about this, is to do their own job and investigate it themselves.
Discretionary decisions with big political import, made by cabinet officials, are not the IG’s concern; they’re the president’s, or Congress’s. Go for it.
But the House Democrats aren’t “going for it.” It looks like they’re trying to weaponize a bastardized version of “process” against the next two years of the Trump administration, bogging it down in made-up procedural reactions to made-up crises.
A number of commentators pointed out when the Mueller report was released that its volume on “obstruction” was a playbook for dogging the Trump administration with the threat of endless probes and potential attempts at impeachment in the balance of Trump’s term. It incorporates a great deal of gratuitous detail – including hearsay that would have tough sledding in court – and ironically makes its own best case for why no obstruction charges could be contemplated. With all that gossipy detail, Mueller couldn’t locate a solid predicate in law for bringing obstruction charges, and Barr didn’t find one either.
It’s a political document, not a legal one.
The same can seemingly be said of Mueller’s sudden concern for misguided media coverage and his 27 March letter to Barr. The professional utility of such a letter is not obvious, and the legal utility is manifestly nonexistent. The first use to which the letter – or, more precisely, the story of the letter – has been put, in this orchestrated roll-out on the last day of April, is a political one.